7 Rated Books Book Reviews

Book Review: The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

Title: The Age of Miracles

Author: Karen Thompson Walker

Genre: Speculative Fiction, Literary Fiction

Publisher: Random House (US) / Simon & Schuster (UK)
Publication Date: June 2012 (US & UK)
Hardcover: 288 Pages (US)

With a voice as distinctive and original as that of The Lovely Bones, and for the fans of the speculative fiction of Margaret Atwood, Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles is a luminous, haunting, and unforgettable debut novel about coming of age set against the backdrop of an utterly altered world.

“It still amazes me how little we really knew. . . . Maybe everything that happened to me and my family had nothing at all to do with the slowing. It’s possible, I guess. But I doubt it. I doubt it very much.”

On a seemingly ordinary Saturday in a California suburb, Julia and her family awake to discover, along with the rest of the world, that the rotation of the earth has suddenly begun to slow. The days and nights grow longer and longer, gravity is affected, the environment is thrown into disarray. Yet as she struggles to navigate an ever-shifting landscape, Julia is also coping with the normal disasters of everyday life—the fissures in her parents’ marriage, the loss of old friends, the hopeful anguish of first love, the bizarre behavior of her grandfather who, convinced of a government conspiracy, spends his days obsessively cataloging his possessions. As Julia adjusts to the new normal, the slowing inexorably continues.

Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel

How did I get this book: ARC from the Publisher

Why did I read this book: I am a sucker for apocalypse novels of most any variety, especially of global/science fiction-tinged catastrophe. When I read the synopsis of The Age of Miracles, I immediately wanted it. Then, when Lu, a friend and fellow blogger, told me about her mixed reaction to the book (and lent me her copy following my NetGalley fiasco), it was time to give it a read.

Review:

On a day like any other, life on Earth irrevocably, inconceivably changes forever. The news breaks on television, as Julia and her disbelieving family watch on: the Earth’s rotation has slowed. Overnight, the planet’s 24 hour day has lengthened by 56 minutes. Scientists don’t know how or why “the slowing” started, nor can they predict if or how much it will continue in the coming months.

As the days sluggishly pass, they continue to lengthen – from 25 hours long, to 40 hours long, and beyond. And as the Earth’s rotation slows, the planet’s inhabitants are affected in strange and unpredictable ways. Earth’s gravitational pull shifts and strengthens, certain species of animals and plants begin to die en masse (just as strange new symptoms of an unidentified sickness develops in humans), and society itself balances on a tenuous edge. Governments make the decision to stick with a 24 hour clock, throwing day and night out of sync and causing a rift in society between those that want to continue living by the Earth’s movements (“real-timers”) and those that abide by the old 24 hour clock and government sanctions (“clock-timers”). Resources are strained to their limits, as food becomes impossible to grow without artificial power, and the days grow impossibly hot while the nights become impossibly cold.

And for all of these dramatic external changes, symptoms, of the Earth’s ever-slowing rotation, The Age of Miracles is truly the story of 11-year-old Julie as she struggles with her family, her friends, and life in a world that continues to change.

I’m not sure quite how I feel about The Age of Miracles. On the one hand, there are many things that Karen Thompson Walker does brilliantly in her debut novel. The premise of the book alone is brilliant, and I love the gradual, creeping dread that seeps into your bones as you read this melancholy portrait of a future Earth, inching slowly, oh so slowly, towards death. The consequences of such a slowing effect are brilliantly conceived and executed through Julie’s narrative – we see the death of grass, the extinction of different species’ of birds, the failure of the world’s food crops, and the harrowing physical prognosis of those suffering from so-called “gravity sickness”. And, while the science fiction geek in me is skeptical and wants ANSWERS and actual physics, I love that for all of this detail, Walker does not attempt at pseudoscientific explanations. The Earth’s rotation has slowed and continues to slow, and that is the premise we – like all the inhabitants of this fictional, doomed planet – must simply, unquestioningly accept.

But beyond the procedural science and cause-effect relationship of the slowing, The Age of Miracles is truly a book about human emotion, connection, and growing up. And this, unfortunately, is where my thoughts for the book become a bit more muddled.

Decidedly, The Age of Miracles is not a young adult novel. It is a book written for an adult audience, but told through the eyes of an 11-year-old girl named Julie. Except, it’s not really told through an 11-year-old’s eyes. The Age of Miracles is narrated, retrospectively, from a much older Julie as she recalls the day that would change the trajectory of her life forever. This reminiscent narrator tactic can be effective and powerful depending on the novel – in the case of The Age of Miracles, I’m not quite sure I buy it, though. There was something inauthentic and heavy-handed about Julie’s future voice, as she frustratingly foreshadows events and spins the narrative to reflect her future beliefs and expectations. The voice would oscillate wildly between world-weary narrator and innocent child, and the transition felt forced. Perhaps the most frustrating thing about The Age of Miracles, however, is how obvious so many of the allusions and messages are – there are plenty of irritating, ham-handed attempts at Being Deep and Drawing Parallels between the Earth’s slowing rotation and Julie’s Growing Up, for example.1

Yet, despite these criticisms, I will say that I fell in love that Julie’s coming of age story. The Age of Miracles details the different hardships Julie faces with her worrying mother and her quiet father, the frustrations and anticipation of first love, and the cold reality of growing apart from old best friends. Sure, the slowing has a cold touch on all of these facets of Julie’s life, but they are real struggles and realities that anyone faces when leaving childhood behind, apocalypse or no. And I appreciate that.

Suffice it to say, The Age of Miracles is a mixed bag for me – I appreciate the underlying premise of the novel, just as I appreciated Julie’s story, though I did not particularly care for the way in which it was told. I loved the slowness and the quietness of the plot overall, and the haunting, elegiac melancholy of the story at large. In many ways, Ms. Walker’s book reminds me of one of my favorite novels – Susan Beth Pfeffer’s unparalleled Life as We Knew It. Like Pfeffer’s book, The Age of Miracles uses the lens of the apocalypse to tell the story of a young girl growing up in impossible circumstance. Like Life as We Knew it, The Age of Miracles has a terrifyingly bleak edge and a chilling cause for the end of the world.

But unlike Life as We Knew It – an epistolary novel, narrated entirely by its teenage protagonist through a series of journal entries – The Age of Miracles lacks the raw, powerful, emotional human connection required to elevate the book from merely good to utterly great.

Ultimately, I enjoyed The Age of Miracles, but it falls short of the biggest and most important test that faces any apocalyptic novel: it lacks emotional resonance and characters with heart. Thus, The Age of Miracles is a good novel, but not a particularly miraculous one.

Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1:

We didn’t notice right away. We couldn’t feel it.

We did not sense at first the extra time, bulging from the smooth edge of each day like a tumor blooming beneath skin. We were distracted back then by weather and war. We had no interest in the turning of the earth. Bombs continued to explode on the streets of distant countries. Hurricanes came and went. Summer ended. A new school year began. The clocks ticked as usual. Seconds beaded into minutes. Minutes grew into hours. And there was nothing to suggest that those hours, too, weren’t still pooling into days, each the same fixed length known to every human being.

But there were those who would later claim to have recognized the disaster before the rest of us did. These were the night workers, the graveyard shifters, the stockers of shelves, and the loaders of ships, the drivers of big- rig trucks, or else they were the bearers of different burdens: the sleepless and the troubled and the sick.

These people were accustomed to waiting out the night. Through bloodshot eyes, a few did detect a certain persistence of darkness on the mornings leading up to the news, but each mistook it for the private misperception of a lonely, rattled mind.

On the sixth of October, the experts went public. This, of course, is the day we all remember. There’d been a change, they said, a slowing, and that’s what we called it from then on: the slowing.

You can read the full excerpt online HERE.

Rating: 7 – Very Good

Reading Next: A Gathering of Gargoyles by Meredith Ann Pierce

Buy the Book: (click on the links to purchase)


Ebook available for kindle US, kindle UK, nook, sony, kobo, google & apple

  1. The dreaded Sledgehammer Technique rears its ugly head once again.

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17 Comments

  • KT Grant
    July 4, 2012 at 9:29 am

    Would you say this is a depressing or uplifting novel? I bet it would be great a movie.

  • Christa @ Hooked on Books
    July 5, 2012 at 7:43 am

    I’m about halfway through this novel right now and really enjoying it. That being said however I’ve also noticed the voice is a bit off – like you said, it seems a bit heavy handed.

    Even though it’s told from Julie’s POV, at times it feels like a third party is relating this all back to us. Which can be a little off putting.

  • Thea
    July 5, 2012 at 10:29 am

    KB – Well…it’s not exactly a chipper pick me up novel. It’s about the end of the world, after all, and there isn’t really any relief in sight. So, no, not an uplifting book in the happy-ever-after sense.

    Christa – I completely understand where you are coming from. I really enjoyed the book and there are some things about it that are *perfect*. At the same time, there are things about it that just don’t work – and the voice is definitely off-putting.

  • Book Review: The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker | The …
    July 8, 2012 at 3:41 pm

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  • Stephanie @ Read in a Single Sitting
    July 8, 2012 at 5:59 pm

    I’ve seen the cover of this one everywhere, so it’s good to see such a thorough review. I’m tiring of postapocalyptic fiction, but if I’m to read something in the genre, I would prefer something quiet–this sounds up my alley.

  • Laura
    July 10, 2012 at 6:55 am

    I’ve been looking up reviews for this book for one main reason — the premise seems brilliant, but doesn’t make sense AT ALL scientifically. I didn’t really stop to think that sometimes, escaping into a world that makes no sense and for which there is no explanation can be just as rewarding as when I can comprehend the reality.

    I think I will end up reading it, especially since you gave it a 7. I entered a giveaway to win a copy, but if I don’t win, I guess I’ll buy it! Thanks so much for your review.

  • Annette Jongen
    July 11, 2012 at 3:05 pm

    Thea, your review is EXACTLY how I felt but couldn’t put into words. Thanks for sharing, it makes me feel more comfortable with my own opinion.
    By the way, I’m such a sucker too, so I will follow your posts!

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  • Louise
    July 15, 2012 at 5:17 am

    Note: it’s JULIA
    I thoroughly enjoyed this novel – I feel the author put a lot of effort into developing the characters, so much so that I was devastated when several of Julia’s friendships ended …. I think it was well written and would highly recommend it

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  • ML
    August 30, 2012 at 11:16 am

    Good review. I have to admit, I didn’t expect to like this one — but ended up really enjoying it. One of a handful of “best of summer” reads, I thought:
    Virtual Book Club – http://imissyouwheniblink.com/2012/08/30/1052/

  • Rorie
    September 22, 2012 at 5:33 pm

    The veracity of the scientific explanations didn’t bother me as much as the depictions of some of the interpersonal relationships. For one, I live in the city described in the story and have for quite some time–through two major wildfires, winter rain that caused major flooding, a few minor earthquakes, and, currently, a two-month-long heat wave–and was bothered by Walker’s representation of the residents here just going about their lives individually at such a time. I can attest to the fact that this community will band together in times of a natural disaster, as I think all Americans would, but the author has everyone holing up in their own homes, going about their lives as close to normally as possible. The only character I felt did what I think others would be doing is Hanna, Julia’s best friend, who moved with her family to Utah to be with her extended family and wait for the second coming, or whatever it is her faith believes in. Having Hanna return was, to me, unrealistic (what’s there to come back to?), but I do understand Walker’s need to tell her story her way. Still, wouldn’t you go live where you wanted to live, be with the people that you wanted to be with? I think most people would.

    Also–and this bothers me with many novels and video depictions of middle school-aged kids–Walker made Julia and her peers say and do things that were beyond their years at times. Why not make them 13-year-olds instead of 11? (And yes, those two years do make a difference.)

    Overall, I think you have to take a step back from reality when reading this novel. On the whole, it’s an interesting premise, moves along at a good pace, has decent character development (I could feel Julia’s pain at times, especially when it came to her relationships with friends), and it makes you really appreciate the life you’re living and contemplate what might happen in an end-of-the-world scenario.

  • Savannah
    December 9, 2012 at 9:52 pm

    What year does this novel take place?

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  • Gloria
    June 13, 2013 at 6:09 pm

    @Savannah: I have read the book three times now, I think, and it doesn’t mention a specific date. I would assume the story is set in our current day, only the author is looking back. So I would think if she is 23 now, the book was set in 2002. However, since the kids have cell phones in the book, I would think the novel is set from say, 2010 onward.

  • Melissa
    December 7, 2013 at 1:55 pm

    Gloria, we are not certain if Julia is still 23. “I was twenty-three when plans for the Explorer were announced.” She uses past tense. For all we know she could be in her late twenties…

  • Anonymous
    December 14, 2013 at 1:14 pm

    Without a doubt the WORST book I have ever read!! AND I would not have read it at all had it not been the selection for the library book club in January. But why?? Why would anyone who knows anything about writing even suggest such a lame piece?
    The only miracle I can see here is that Ms Walker found a publisher for this load of rubbish. But I lie. The other miracle is that the book is finding readership; and lots of it, apparently. But again; those are not miracles in the sense that a miracle is a positive thing. It just means success against all odds. And now a movie?
    I liken this book to The Emperor’s New Clothes. Because there is a slimy undercurrent of “us” being responsible for Global Warming, tears in the ozone layer, and melting icebergs etc. ad nauseam and that even though the author can’t think of any reason for the earth slowing its rotation on its axis there is the suggestion that this too is OUR fault and ERGO no one wants to call her out. “Aw shucks! It must be true!” everyone gushes. This must be a wake-up call for the future that we all should read; after Al Gore’s book, that is! Oh please!!
    But even if I could swallow all that baloney the book fails and fails.
    1. There is no scientific understanding to enlarge on Walker’s theme. She has an idea; the earth’s rotation slows but has not the foggiest idea what would really happen in the case of this catastrophe and doesn’t even try to generate one.
    2. By keeping her point of view almost exclusively that of an 11 year old she abdicates all responsibility for enlarging the reader’s perspective. We rarely know what is going on anywhere else other than in this child’s mind. This MIGHT work if the 11 year old were insightful, but plainly she isn’t. And, by definition, neither is the author.
    3. Her characters react in hugely predictable fashion. Her school friends play hooky; her mother stock piles food; her grandfather digs out his 1950’s bomb shelter; her father has an affair…duh! Not a scrap of depth in any one of them. Where does Walker think her adult readers have been all their lives that any of this would be entertaining or informative?
    4. The 11 year old story teller keeps the literary level insultingly pre-teen. It is repetitive, banal and lacking insight. Any thoughtful young reader would yawn.
    5. Occasional lurches in voice, excused by the author trying to look back on the present from some indeterminate future date, have her over painting Julia’s reflections. We hear at these moments the maudlin adult or worse, the social propagandist.
    6. And the ending! For God’s sake. The kids writing in cement that “we were here”. That is the icing on the cake for full scale crap.

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